BACKGROUND: Süleyman Shah (c.1178-1236) was the grandfather of Osman I (1258-1324), the founder of the Ottoman Empire. He is believed to have drowned while trying to cross the Euphrates. An Ottoman era mausoleum on the bank of the Euphrates near the castle of Qal’at Ja’bar in what is now northern Syria came to be regarded as containing the remains of Süleyman Shah and two of his contemporaries. But they have never been conclusively identified.
In 1974 the area around the tomb was inundated by the reservoir for the newly-built Tabqa Dam. The tomb was moved over 80 kilometers farther north to a new location, again on the bank of the Euphrates, approximately 30 kilometers from the Turkish border.
Under Article 9 of the 1921 Treaty of Ankara, Turkey was granted property rights over the tomb and was allowed to station a token military force at the site as an honor guard. Contrary to the assertions of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the site is not Turkish sovereign territory. It is owned by Turkey, not part of it.
The site covers an area of approximately 8,000 square meters. But, in recent years, as the AKP has become increasingly intoxicated by Ottoman nostalgia, it has assumed considerable symbolic importance – providing a territorial foothold in what Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has described as “Turkey’s near abroad” and tangible proof that turning the Middle East into a Turkish sphere of influence would constitute what he terms the resumption of “the natural flow of history”.
In March 2014, as the terrorist organization calling itself the “Islamic State” (ISIS) expanded the territory under its control in Syria, the tomb became surrounded. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey has developed relationships – mostly through the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) – with extremist Islamist groups amongst the rebel forces, including al Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Although it did not establish such a relationship with ISIS, the Turkish government was confident that the support it had provided to the other extremist Islamist forces fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would prevent it from being directly targeted by the organization. As a result, it came as a shock when ISIS militants threatened to attack Süleyman Shah unless the garrison of around 40 Turkish troops withdrew.
The crisis presented the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – who was still prime minister at the time – with a dilemma, particularly as it occurred in the run-up to the March 30, 2014 local elections. Erdoğan saw a resounding AKP victory in the local elections as being critical to his hopes of generating sufficient momentum to ensure that he also triumphed in the presidential elections that were scheduled for August 10, 2014. If he withdrew the garrison from Süleyman Shah, he would be accused of responsibility for a national humiliation by abandoning what his own officials had described as the only Turkish sovereign territory outside the borders of the republic.
But being driven out of the tomb by ISIS would have been even worse. If ISIS had attacked Süleyman Shah, Erdoğan would have had little choice but to launch a major military campaign to defend it, including air strikes and the deployment of ground troops and heavy weaponry to reinforce the garrison. There would have been a high risk that Turkey would effectively become an active participant in the Syrian Civil War – something to which opinion polls suggested the Turkish public was overwhelmingly opposed.
Gradually, the tensions subsided. The AKP won a comfortable victory in the March 2014 local elections. ISIS made no attempt either to overrun Süleyman Shah or to interfere when Turkey sent a military convoy across the border to resupply and rotate the garrison.
But the Turkish government received another shock on June 11, 2014, when ISIS forces advancing into Iraq overran the Turkish Consulate in the Mosul and took 49 members of staff hostage. Less than 24 hours earlier, Davutoğlu had tweeted that the consulate was not in danger and that all the necessary measures had been taken to ensure its safety. The hostages were eventually released on 20 September 2014 in a prisoner exchange brokered by MİT.
The AKP had cited concerns about endangering the safety of the hostages as a reason for its reluctance to join the U.S.-led coalition that launched an air campaign against ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq in August 2014. But Turkey still refused to play an active role in the military coalition even after the hostages had been released. Through late 2014, the AKP even prevented reinforcements and supplies from reaching the Syrian Kurds defending the autonomous enclave of Kobane – which is located just south of the Turkish-Syrian border – against ISIS. Erdoğan clearly hoped that ISIS would overrun Kobane and prevent it from inspiring Turkey’s own Kurds to push even for their own autonomous region in the southeast of the country.
But such assistance appeared to have no effect on ISIS attitudes towards Turkey. Indeed, through late 2014, Turkish government officials became increasingly worried that ISIS was preparing to stage attacks inside the country.
IMPLICATIONS: On 6 January 2015, a female suicide bomber walked into the building housing the Tourism Police in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul and detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) strapped to her body, killing herself and a police officer. She was later identified as Diana Ramazova, a Russian national whose husband had died fighting for ISIS in Syria. The Turkish media were soon quoting sources in MİT as describing the incident as the first ISIS attack inside Turkey, claiming that Ramazova was seeking revenge for Turkey killing her husband. Although it is possible that Ramazova sincerely believed that Turkey had killed her husband, there is no proof that this was why she carried out the attack. Nor does there appear to have been an incident in which her husband could have been killed by Turkey. ISIS has not issued any claim responsibility for the attack. Indeed, it is difficult to see what the organization could have hoped to gain from it.
Nevertheless, on 26 January 2015, the Turkish media quoted sources in MİT as reporting that they had uncovered a plot by ISIS militants to attack foreign diplomatic representatives in Istanbul. No evidence was produced to support the claim. But there were nevertheless signs that the security forces now regarded ISIS as a genuine threat to the country’s security. On 27 January 2015, a Turkish national was arrested in the southeastern city of Gaziantep on suspicion of belonging to ISIS. Although 700-1,000 Turkish nationals are believed to have joined ISIS since it was founded in 2013, it was the first time that one had been arrested. On 11 February 2015, the Turkish General Staff posted a statement on its website reporting that the Turkish military had detained a Turkish national who had been trying to cross into Syria to fight for ISIS. It was the first time that the Turkish security forces had reported arresting a Turkish national to prevent him from joining ISIS.
The military operation to evacuate Süleyman Shah was another product of the perceived increased security threat from ISIS. In late 2014, the Turkish government had decided to postpone the six-monthly resupply and rotation of the garrison for fear that the military convoy could come under attack from ISIS. But it could not prevaricate indefinitely.
The pro-AKP government media has tried to portray the operation to evacuate Süleyman Shah – which involved over 100 armored vehicles and more than 500 troops – as a heroic triumph, gleefully reporting that the convoy had not come under fire either on its way to the site or during its return to Turkey. In reality, Turkey had already ensured that it would not have to fight by informing all of the warring parties in the region of its intentions. Indeed, in withdrawing its forces and destroying the mausoleum, Turkey had voluntarily done what ISIS had been trying to force it to do in March 2014. Although it may have made sense militarily, from a political perspective – far from being a heroic triumph – Turkey’s evacuation of Süleyman Shah was a humiliating defeat.
CONCLUSIONS: In recent years, one of the most striking features of Erdoğan’s public pronouncements has been the growing gap between his rhetoric and reality. Although he trumpets the creation of what he describes as “an advanced democracy”, Erdoğan is increasingly resorting to authoritarian repression in an attempt to maintain his grip on power. Far from being – as his supporters seem to believe – a demonstration of strength, it is a tacit admission of weakness.
Similarly, Erdoğan has repeatedly insisted that he has transformed the Turkey into a major power that is envied and feared in Europe and the United States and that has become the hope and the champion of the world’s Muslims in what he appears to regard as an almost Manichaean struggle with the West. In reality, Turkey is now more isolated than at any other time since the AKP first came to power in 2002 – not just internationally but also in the Middle East. Yet, instead of realizing the increasing hollowness of their claims, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu seemed to have become even more convinced by them. Criticisms or apparent setbacks have been attributed to nefarious Western conspiracies to try to sabotage Turkey’s inexorable rise to greatness – and then adduced as proof that the AKP’s rhetoric must be true: for why else would the West need to conspire to try to weaken Turkey before it was too late?
Yet, beneath the bluster of the statements issued by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu after the evacuation of Süleyman Shah, was an implicit admission of defeat. Erdoğan tried too hard to portray the operation as merely yet another relocation of the tomb. Davutoğlu announced that the remains would soon be reburied in new location on the Turkish border, a mere 200 meters inside Syrian territory, pending their eventual return to their original site. If Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had only been concerned about protecting the remains, they would have interred them somewhere inside Turkey. Instead, they tried to disguise the depth of their defeat by burying them in a site that they could claim was still inside Syria. It is a long time since anyone but the most blinkered of their supporters took Erdoğan’s and Davutoğlu’s rhetoric seriously. This time, it seems, they could not even fool themselves.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons)